The Streaming Winners and Losers of 2021: Film

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Looking back on 2021, it probably ended up “weirder” than 2020. In 2020, theaters shuttered due to the pandemic, so nothing happened after March, outside of Disney and Warner Bros. trying to release Tenet and Mulan.

Last year, in contrast, Warner Bros tried to release all their films day-and-date on streaming. Disney had some films go straight-to-streaming, while others went to theaters, and others had a day-and-date PVOD (premium video-on-demand) release. Netflix continued releasing their films directly to streaming, but they and Prime Video bought some Sony and Paramount titles that skipped theaters altogether.

With all the different release patterns, how can we rank the winners and losers in streaming?

We can’t. So we won’t. Instead, I’ll give each distribution method it’s own winner. Every (streamer) gets a trophy! 

Like last time, if you want to read my 2020 take, head over to Decider. If you missed part one (TV), click here.


– This is U.S. viewership only.
– For films that premiered in 2021.
– There isn’t an “algorithm” that can answer this question. Sorry. It’s my judgement.
– Nor is there an official scoreboard. I’ll look at multiple data points, and make the best call I can.
– Where I can, I’ll try to call out a winner and loser per streaming service. With the caveat that Netflix dominates streaming viewership, as I pointed out last week, so they have the most winners.
– For winners, costs doesn’t really matter. Big budgets lead to bigger hits, so be it.
– For losers, cost does matter. A $200 million dollar film flop hurts more than a $250K low budget indie film.

In Case You Missed It – A Netflix Myth About A Blockbuster Debunked

My latest article for The Ankler went out last Friday as well, behind their paywall. I know some folks wish it could be free, but frankly the Ankler partnership helps keeps the lights on over here at EntStrategyGuy headquarters.


Theatrical – Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sony/Marvel)

Spider-Man! What are you doing here? You aren’t a streaming film! Well, it made $1.6 billion at the box office. Eventually it will end up on Starz premium cable. After that, who knows?

As I laid out in The Ankler last week, thus far, nothing on Netflix has quite approached the top theatrical films of all time, including our true streaming winner. In fact, we could take the chart I made for The Ankler, and add Spider-Man’s current viewership to my Avengers: Endgame and Red Notice comparison:

Adult/Not-Kids/Primetime, Streaming Only – Red Notice (Netflix)

As I laid out when I did the post mortem on Red Notice a few weeks back, this is Netflix’s biggest global film (measured by total viewership in the first 28 days). Again, this is a U.S. focused list, but the global viewership totals are impressive on their own:

Looking at U.S. streaming only—some of those charts are below—Red Notice is also currently the biggest “for-adults” film though four full weeks on Nielsen’s ratings charts. (See below.) Red Notice was also the best performing “for adults” title on the Nielsen 2021 totals chart (see next section). It won multiple categories so wins the overall prize.

Honorable Mention: Don’t Look Up did excellent too. Its initial debut tied with Encanto as the highest debut through two weeks. Given its late release, though, it didn’t make the Nielsen overall charts. In fact, based on its week four hold, it could pass Red Notice as the biggest title through four weeks for adults. Personally, I consider Red Notice’s non-Christmas viewership more impressive, but you could almost flip a coin here.

Kids, Streaming Only – Luca (Disney+)

Do we need two separate categories for kids films and “for adult”/primetime films? I think so. Frankly, the kids titles have heavy rewatchability, which defies the decay typical of streaming (and theatrical) films over time. So let’s award both! 

And the winner is Luca, hands down. Here’s Nielsen’s top films by total hours viewed for all of 2021:

Soul also had a great start, but it looks like Luca had a slightly better hold. Toss in the fact that Soul had a “Christmas week bump” and wasn’t technically released in 2021, and Luca wins in a landslide.

Early/Pay 1 Film – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings & Encanto (Disney+)

A “pay 1” film is released in theaters, then typically arrives on premium cable three to six months after theaters. Disney has the most films in this category in 2021, as it released several films on PVOD, then brought them to “free” streaming after about 90 days. As I’ve been charting all last year, here are the top Disney films by PVOD and streaming only. 

Encanto will likely pass Luca in the next few weeks as the biggest film through four weeks, even with a theatrical run. Like Don’t Look Up, Encanto benefitted from a Christmas release. This look also shows how much Disney can drive repeat views, as their four top titles are all kids films.

Shang-Chi comes in fifth, but is the number one for films for adults. Though Black Widow was close, with 44.9 million hours combined between PVOD and SVOD in the first 28 days to Shang-Chi’s 47.3 million hours. (Shang-Chi also edged out at the theaters, $417 million worldwide to Black Widow’s $375 million.)

Day-and-Date Release Film – Dune or Mortal Kombat or Godzilla vs Kong (HBO Max)

More terminology time. A “day-and-date” film is released in theaters and on streaming simultaneously. Examples from 2021 include Halloween (Peacock), Clifford the Big Red Dog (Paramount+) and the entire HBO Max/Warner Media catalogue, which caused a kerfuffle last year when it was announced.

This is one of those areas where the data is only so-so. Neither Peacock, Paramount+ nor HBO Max let Nielsen release their data. Thus, I turned to Samba TV to answer this query, with the caveat that they only release data for select films. Here you go:

Really this is between the top six HBO Max titles. Of those Samba TV titles, Dune had the highest box office haul ($400 million global) and the best IMDb rating (8.1), which gives it the edge. It also came in third behind Shang-Chi and Red Notice in the TV Time rankings for the last two months of the year:

Honorable Mentions: Both Clifford the Big Red Dog and Halloween did well for their respective streamers, as I wrote before.

Rescued From Theaters Film – The Tomorrow War (Prime Video)

Man, this is stretching this category thing as far as it will go. But one of the reasons I think we’ll always remember 2021 as a weird year is the fact that theaters restarted, but still some studios sold their films to streamers for a guaranteed pay day. Entries in this category include The Tomorrow War, Coming 2 America, Without Remorse, Vivo, The Mitchells vs The Machines and Cinderella. Quite a bit to choose from!

Here are the top films released in 2021, ranked by total viewership in the first four weeks of release:

And the winner is The Tomorrow War. Though it probably benefitted from the July Fourth weekend—as Hamilton did a year earlier—it still clearly bested the other “saved” from theaters films.

(Fun fact: Ten of the top fifteen films in 2021 were intended to be released in theaters or did have a theatrical run. Interesting…)

Honorable Mentions: The Mitchell’s vs The Machines wins the title as best rescued kids film.


Film – Losers

Netflix – America: The Movie

This is really the second place award behind Tick, tick…Boom! which I called the biggest “dog not barking” of the year over at The Ankler. Both of these films failed to ever chart on the Nielsen or Netflix self-reported global viewership charts. Which is bad! The question is which had better bonafides (talent/IP) and higher costs. In that context, I thought Tick, tick…Boom! just edged out America: The Movie.

Prime Video – All the prestige films.

Sorry, I can’t pick just one film. Prime Video really wants to win awards, but just doesn’t pick very popular films. I mentioned Annette in my take on musicals at The Ankler, but could add scripted fare like The Electrical Life of Louis Wain or documentaries like Mayor Pete. Like Netflix, Amazon (desperately) wants to win a Best Picture, and the price is a bunch of films that mostly customers ignore.

Apple TV+ – Cherry

Released early in the year, Cherry has legit talent attached: Tom Holland acting and the Russo brothers directing. Yet, according to one data point I saw, this film had less than 50K households watch on debut. That’s pretty bad overall.

Disney+ – The Diary of a Wimpy Kid

This isn’t the first kids film to miss for Disney+—see Artemis Fowl of 2020—but its one of the more recent misses.

HBO Max – In The Heights

I know, I’m picking on musicals again, which I’ve linked to now four times today. But of the lower rated HBO Max dual releases, this one probably had the lowest budget/talent to performance ratio.


This one is tough. They only really had one hit this year—Vacation Friends—and everything else either missed the charts (Plan B, False Positive, Boss Level, Mother/Android) or ranked very low (The United States vs Billie Holiday ranked 128th out of films in my data set that made the Nielsen ratings.)

(As always, sign up for my newsletter to get all my columns, streaming ratings reports, and articles in your inbox.)

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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